If there is one man who would have savoured every second of the wondrous win that saw Wales top their group and march into the last 16 of Euro 2016 it is Peter Corrigan.
But sadly Wales’ greatest sports journalist did not live to see this moment of football history.
Peter, who had been suffering with cancer, passed away last week surrounded by his family.
Those who knew and loved him mourn him deeply. And those who did not know him – but loved the wit, warmth and insight the Cardiff-born writer brought to the back pages of Welsh and British newspapers in a career spanning 50 years – will miss him too.
I was privileged to call Peter a friend and mentor. I always referred to him as the “Godfather of Welsh sports writing”. It wasn’t just because of his status as the ultimate sporting scribe – someone who had occupied every editorial role from copy boy at the Echo to sports editor of The Observer – it was because he was professionally paternal too.
‘He made a huge impact’
There are those who get to the top of the career ladder and draw it up after them. There are others who reach down and give a helping hand to those of us clinging nervously to the lower rungs. Peter was definitely in the latter camp, sharing his wisdom and experience to nurturing effect.
He made a huge impact on my confidence when I was making my first tentative forays into sports writing. Indeed he wanted me to write regularly for a London newspaper – a step I didn’t think I was ready for at the time – and teased me gently about “bottling it” for years afterwards.
But the fact he thought I could do it was encouragement enough. It was a massive boost to have the belief of someone as illustrious as Peter. He helped me in other ways, getting me involved with the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame as a trustee, smoothing contacts with some of the biggest names in sport and always humouring my requests for broadcast interviews or simple brain-picking.
Even the project I’m working on at the moment – a television documentary on the life and career of Mavis Nicholson – is largely down to Peter. He was a great friend of Mavis and her late husband Geoff Nicholson, his fellow Observer sports writer. Peter paved the way for Mavis and I to meet, assuring both us we would get on brilliantly. Our conduit was right.
‘I will never forget’
I will never forget the kindness he showed me. I will never forget his humour either. It was present on the page and in person. There was always a laugh in his voice and a chuckle in his copy. I could never believe he was 80 as there was such a sense of youthful mischief.
We shared some pretty robust banter over his membership of the then-men- only Cardiff County Club. As soon as members voted to allow women in, he ensured I was the first female
speaker in its 150-year history, inviting me to address the club’s golf’s society Christmas lunch. A cutting of the article I had written 13 years previously, lambasting the old membership policy, was present on every place setting.
I loved to hear his stories from that long and colour-filled career in sports coverage. “I think I worked on 17 newspapers in my time,” he told me recalling tales of “blood on the notebook” at the side of the boxing ring and his wonderment of the endurance bordering on masochism he witnessed from the cyclists of the Tour de France.
When I asked him who was the most impressive sportsperson he’d ever interviewed, he replied: “That’s very difficult because I’ve probably spoken them all – Ali, Pele, George Best.
But my favourite sportsman was Howard Winstone. I used to cover boxing for the Echo as well as football. Howard was just beginning then and he was the most natural and disarmingly honest man I’ve ever met.
‘The walls are now up’
“And quite brilliant,” he continued. “But unfortunately a large number of very tough South Americans were around at the time and I don’t think Howard got the recognition he deserved but to me he was the greatest boxer I’d ever seen. And the greatest man too – and he remained so until his very untimely death. Didn’t ask for anything, didn’t want any money. Genuine. There are a large number of sports people like that I find. Unfortunately the walls are put up now by agents and PR people and you don’t get to know them know as intimately as we knew them.”
Peter certainly did know some of the biggest sporting stars of the 20th century – and they trusted him. “I used to play cards with players on the team bus but that nature of journalism has changed,” he told me. “Sportspeople are under the microscope to a far greater extent. Things used to go on when I went away with football teams that we wouldn’t have dreamed of reporting – mainly because we were involved in them ourselves!”
While he understood why the modern athlete would be wary of the close contact with the media previous generations enjoyed, he felt both sides were missing out by not connecting.
Peter was such a people person himself his journalistic interest lay not in “exposing” but “understanding” the character of the elite sportsperson.
“It’s a shame we’ve lost that connection because the more you mix with people the more you understand them,” he explained. “And I think great sportspeople are a breed apart – and they need understanding. Our job as sports writers is supposed to convey and communicate what they feel to the readers. Otherwise you get this great chasm of understanding between the fans and the sportspeople. We’re supposed to be there to bridge that chasm and I’m afraid we don’t always do it that well.”
‘He would never admit…’
But Peter always did it well – though he would never admit it. I did once manage to tease out the one piece he took a particular pride in. It was about his Welsh hero.
“There’s not a piece I’ve written I wouldn’t go back and try and rewrite it. I wrote a piece on Howard Winstone that got me my job on The Observer – replacing the great Hugh McIlvanney – so I was quite pleased about that one. There have been so many pieces in 50 years – most of which I’d preferred not to have written – but Howard keeps coming back.
Maybe because I thought so much of him, it came through.”
I thought so much of Peter too, and I hope it comes through in this piece.
And as we thrill to the Euro journey of the Welsh football team I’ve been reflecting on the chat Peter and I once had on the bigger value of sports writing and sport itself – how it can serve as a metaphor for all sorts of emotions and experiences beyond the field of play.
He told me: “Sport is a mirror of life and I think most people who love sport recognise that. They can see the struggles, they love to see people overcoming adversity, people coming from the bottom to the top. And sport is full of that – every day of the week sport has got examples of that. And of course there’s the downside, people falling down, failing and not living up to expectations, doing things wrong, cheating…it’s got everything. But in the end in sport most people get up and walk home. It’s not like war where a lot of people don’t. So it is ‘playing’ really but it’s dramatic enough for us to be dramatic about it.
“And we can talk in terms of death and glory when it really isn’t death or glory. But it is for us – and for the people who read what we write and for the people who follow sport.”